Where’s the best place to talk about the Bible in our increasingly Bible-illiterate culture? And with whom?
Perhaps you’d be surprised if I told you that some of today’s most fascinating Bible-oriented conversations are taking place in non-church settings in America’s least Bible-oriented cities, among people who hold a mix of perspectives (religious and otherwise) about the Bible and are drawn together by a mutual desire to look at “the good book” in new ways.
Recently, I took part in several public conversations of this sort about the Bible and its declining place in American society—a society that once took the Bible very seriously but now seems to have less and less regard for it.
“The Great Bible Experiment: Exploring the Bible in the Least Bible-Minded Cities” was a series of panel events created by Anne Robertson, a United Methodist minister who directs the Massachusetts Bible Society. Intuiting that the Bible stands at a crossroads in the midst of an advancing secularity, Robertson organized a fresh look at the Bible in the hope of re-imagining how—and whether—it can be a vibrant force in America again.
Featuring a multi-faith panel and audience surveys and questions, the Bible Experiment events were staged in exactly the kinds of settings where this kind of creative conversation needs to happen: in four northeastern communities—New Haven, Albany, Providence, and Boston—that the Barna Group recently labelled some of the least “Bible-minded” cities in the nation.
Among the three of us on the traveling panel, I represented the secular voice at the table. Anne Robertson also participated in the dialogue, as did Warren Savage, a Roman Catholic priest who is a lecturer at Elms College and a chaplain at Amherst and a handful of other schools.
The robust turnouts for the Bible Experiment events—close to 100 people showed up for the first iteration in New Haven, and approximately 250 participated in the series finale at Harvard in person or online—are sure signs that people are ready to engage in a different kind of conversation about the Bible … if it promotes exploration rather than evangelization.
The Great Bible Experiment has led me to a conclusion that proves surprising, especially for a secular person. Namely, I’ve become convinced that the Bible’s decline is a loss to all of us, religious or otherwise—and that it’s a needless loss, at that.
For if the Bible is read with care and thought, it still has much to offer all these centuries after its composition. The book delivers everything from moving poetry and wise morality to myths and metaphors illuminating the why and how of human existence. Its stories and teachings address painful issues happening on our streets today, whether they’re police shootings of unarmed black men or our tendency to dehumanize Muslims or other “others.” And then there are the penetrating insights of Jesus, which remain powerfully applicable and compelling whatever our beliefs about his divine status.
But fewer and fewer of us, alas, are availing ourselves of this resource. Reams of data and analysis reveal Americans’ woeful lack of knowledge about the Bible. Despite the Bible’s ubiquity—the average U.S. household has more than four copies, and most Americans still call it a sacred text—the book is less frequently consulted than it used to be and, as a result, increasingly a stranger to our culture.
About half of Americans read the Bible seldom or not at all, and only a quarter of Americans say they read their Bible on a regular basis (four or more times a week), which is funny, given that more than two-thirds of Americans identify as Christian.
All those Bibles are collecting dust for reasons both numerous and complicated. One that stands out for me is the insistence of some high-profile Christian spokespeople that the Bible be taken literally. Let the opening of the Noah’s Ark theme park in Kentucky this past July stand as a carnivalesque symbol of this literalist position, which not only insists on treating the Bible as a 100 percent accurate journalistic account of history, but also tells us that we must accept the factual truth of all of the Bible—including (unfortunately for the Bible) the bits that are, well, unbelievable.
Regrettably, literalists seem to have succeeded in establishing the terms of debate. When it comes to the Bible, it’s their way or the highway.
These days, the highway is getting a lot of traffic.
This is especially true for younger adults, who have grown up with great respect for science and technology and enjoy the easy ability to access information about pretty much everything, without going through their pastors or parents the way previous generations did.
And that’s why the message of our Catholic priest panelist, Warren Savage, deserves a wide hearing. During the Bible Experiment events, Savage stressed that reading the Bible through a lens of love, as he was taught to do by his mother in his childhood, changes what jumps off the pages. Suddenly, readers encounter a Bible that is quite different than the fear-filled tome that is used to reject LGBT people. Suddenly, questions about whether Noah’s Ark was actually built—and how all those animals managed to fit onto it!—seem to matter less.
Anne Robertson’s message at our Bible Experiment also merits broad airing, for it, too, added complexity and nuance to over-simplified debates about the Bible’s veracity. Even as Anne acknowledged that the Bible might not always be factual in the ways we expect history books and newspaper articles to be, she argued that the Bible still contains Truth: timeless wisdom and enriching accounts of our existence and world.
As Robertson says, it is possible to have our brains and the Bible. And the more we engage the former, along with our hearts and our non-defensiveness, the more we can get out of the latter—and the more our biblically clueless culture might benefit, too.